Considering how commonplace they are, blackheads are still surprisingly vexing. Trying to remove one should be considered a skincare initiation rite by now, as most of us have probably experienced these little annoyances some point or another. A single glance at a blackhead in the mirror can turn into an hour-long effort to squeeze it out — in part, because it seems like it should be an easy task. And unlike cystic acne (prone to scarring) or whiteheads (prone to inflammation), blackheads appear to be comparatively low-stakes.
There’s some truth to that. “A blackhead is similar to a whitehead — they’re [both] called comedones when the pore gets clogged with oil, debris, and dead skin cells — but the blackhead is open to the surface of the skin,” explains Sandra Lee, MD, board-certified dermatologist of Upland, California. (Though, Dr. Lee is better known to her legions of fans as Dr. Pimple Popper — if you’re unfamiliar, she has millions of YouTube subscribers and a TLC show, all due to her fame for popping blemishes). It’s only a darker color because oxygen oxidizes the congestion inside the pore, turning it “black.” According to Dr. Lee, “[Popping blackheads] is more acceptable because they’re more superficial in the skin.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s without risk. If you get carried away with picking at it, you could do more harm than good. “Sometimes people think it’s a blackhead, and they squeeze and squeeze, and wonder why it’s not coming out,” she warns. Well, guess what? “It may not be a blackhead. She notes that sebaceous filaments and dark spots are often mistaken for blackheads. Doggedly trying to work the offending spot out of your skin could result in irritation, hyperpigmentation, or even permanent scarring.
In fact, the right way to remove a blackhead may not even be squeezing it out. Certain tools and ingredients are especially effective at both treating and preventing blackheads — and can do so without harming skin. Here, find your arsenal in your war against them.
Unlike more invasive forms of removing blackheads, like comedone extractors, pore strips use a gentle adhesive to literally lift the congestion out of your pores. “Pore strips are great, because they help to bind to that blackhead and just pull it out without damaging your normal skin,” says Dr. Lee. That ability to remove blackheads gently and without traumatizing the skin around them makes these a particularly effective solution. A pore strip also prevents you from overdoing it. “My mantra is: ‘Know when to pop and know when to stop’,” she says. With a strip, you can circumvent popping altogether — but still get some satisfaction out of it.
Try Bioré® Deep Cleansing Pore Strips ($10), which handily remove pore-clogging debris from skin. Use it after you shower for the best effects. “The steam will relax your pores and soften the debris that’s in them,” says Dr. Lee. That, in turn, helps the pore strip to bind more firmly to the blackhead, making it even more effective.
You’ve likely read by now that salicylic acid is a gold standard ingredient for treating acne — and it’s particularly helpful for blackheads. “Salicylic acid actually crystallizes to a small enough size to settle into the pore and keep blackheads from forming,” explains Dr. Lee. By getting deep into the pores, it treats blackheads from the inside out, ultimately making it a less hospitable environment for blackhead-causing bacteria.
Salicylic acid can also reduce the production of excess oil on the skin’s surface and inside the pores. That’s essential for battling blackheads. “Oil is part of the mixture that creates the perfect environment for P. acnes bacteria to get involved and grow,” she adds. For the best prevention without irritation, stick to salicylic acid in a cleanser formula, such as La Roche-Posay® Effaclar® Medicated Gel Cleanser ($15). Because the active ingredient isn’t sitting on your skin (and is literally getting washed down the drain), it’s less likely to cause any sensitivity. It’ll also fend off future blackheads every time you lather up.
One way to prevent blackheads from forming in the first place is by incorporating a retinol-infused skincare formula into your routine. It’s not just a powerful anti-aging ingredient but also an effective skin-clearer, as well. “Retinol helps to break down the products within the pore and keep the pores clear,” Dr. Lee explains.
Plus, by spurring skin cell turnover, retinol makes it less likely that dead cells will collect in pores. Go for a formula that counteracts the potential drying and irritating effects of retinol with nourishing ingredients. We like Kate Somerville® +Retinol Vitamin C Moisturizer ($90), which pairs powerhouse retinol with brightening vitamin C. Because vitamin C, like retinol, also helps promote cellular turnover, you should see clearer, smoother skin with consistent use.
[Editor's note: Retinol shouldn't be used by those who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.]
Follow up your blackhead remedies with a targeted spot treatment to help aid healing. “A lot of times, [a spot treatment] will have antibacterial properties, and even something in it to help destroy bacteria or clean up the pores,” says Dr. Lee. “And it helps you keep your hands off it.” Otherwise, you may be tempted to pick even further. We often opt for acne patches to quite literally shield the blemish from poking, prodding fingers. Alternatively, you can reach for PCA Skin® Acne Cream ($30), which contains five percent benzoyl peroxide to make quick work of any lingering bacteria.
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